Davenport Finds Groove as Underdog

Times Staff Writer

She has a new residence on the tennis ladder (seeded No. 9), an out-of-the-way spot at Melbourne Park (Show Court 2) for her third-round match today and a fresh label (underdog).

None of this has irritated Lindsay Davenport in the least. She's enjoying the role reversal, watching the higher-seeded players stress out, well, over the stress. Lowered expectations have brought fringe benefits she has not experienced in years.

"It's nice to be the underdog, semi the underdog," said Davenport, smiling.

Even Davenport knows that's a stretch. Still, on paper that will be the outlook in her next match against fifth-seeded Justin Henin-Hardenne of Belgium in the fourth round.

Neither Davenport nor Henin-Hardenne had much trouble today. Davenport, who survived a scare in the second round, was the model of efficiency in her 6-2, 6-1 victory over Tatiana Panova of Russia, winning in 53 minutes. Henin-Hardenne dispatched Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia in an hour.

Second-seeded Venus Williams got over a brief second-set lapse to take out Anca Barna of Germany, 6-1, 6-4, rallying from a 1-4, 0-40 deficit today in the third round.

Second-seeded Andre Agassi dropped his first set in three matches but survived a difficult test against Nicolas Escude of France, winning, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, in two hours 48 minutes.

One familiar second-week face exited on Thursday. Twenty-year-old qualifier Klara Koukalova of the Czech Republic upset No. 6 Monica Seles, 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-3, in the second round. Seles, a four-time champion here, had never lost before the quarterfinals in Melbourne but was hampered by a sprained left ankle.

Seles turned over on the ankle during the third game of the first set when Koukalova wrong-footed her on a volley. She took her shoe off and needed immediate treatment from the trainer. "I couldn't believe actually that I won," said Koukalova, who will play Meghann Shaughnessy in the third round. "But Monica is a top-10 player, so it's unbelievable."

Of the top-10 seeded players on the women's side, only two have lost -- No. 3 and two-time defending champion Jennifer Capriati and Seles.

Of the fourth-round matches, Davenport vs. Henin-Hardenne has the most potential. Henin-Hardenne, who has never defeated Davenport, was upset she had to meet her so early.

Additionally, she thought Davenport was faking an injury in their last meeting, at Zurich in October when she called for the trainer because of sore shins.

"I laughed about it a little bit because I won the first set, and then I got hurt, so I wasn't quite sure why she thought I would fake it," Davenport said. "I think she was frustrated. If she had played a similar game out there, there's no way I could have won. She couldn't hit a ball on the court all of a sudden when I called the trainer out twice. It's definitely something I'm not known for. My friends all thought it was pretty funny.

"Whatever. I think she puts a lot of pressure on herself sometimes, just couldn't get the ball in anymore. So it wasn't my fault that I won."

Said Henin-Hardenne: "Zurich is very far away from now. It wasn't the same conditions as now. It was another match. I hope it's done. I'm sure it's done. In two days, I hope I can win for the first time against her."

That incident came during a tough stretch for Davenport after the U.S. Open. She was in the midst of searching for a new coach because Robert Van't Hof, who had worked with her for 10 years, was planning on spending more time with his family. She was able to stay in something of a comfort zone, hiring doubles specialist Rick Leach, who is her future brother-in-law, the older brother of her fiance Jon.

"I had to figure it out in my mind. It was really hard to play in the fall," she said in an interview with The Times before the Australian Open. "I really didn't know what I wanted to do, in terms of, 'OK, do I still want to play?' Will it be fun? What am I going to do now?' Once I found Rick [Leach] and we had an agreement I felt it a lot easier to go practice and a lot more excitement to get back."

Did she consider quitting tennis?

"A little bit. It's a very tough job," Davenport said. "And it's not fun to do it with just anybody. I'm outside the top 10 and I've got no points coming off till the end of July, so I'm in a great position now. Probably the least amount of pressure I've ever had on me."

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